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Australian Journal of Adult Learning 
Volume 56, Number 2, July 2016 

Transformative learning challenges in a context of 

trauma and fear: 
an educator's story 

Vaughn M.John 

University of KwaZulu-Natal 

After more than three decades of development, transformative 
learning theory is currently a major theory of adult learning. It has 
also attracted substantial critique, leading to further development, 
application and differentiation. Recent contributions to this vast 
scholarship show a quest for a more unified theory. 

This article examines transformative learning theory via a case study 
of an adult education project in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. 
Drawing on life and pedagogical experiences of an educator, it focusses 
on aspects of the theory subjected to critique and raises questions 
about attempts to foster transformative learning in oppressive contexts 
involving trauma and fear. The article calls for greater attention 
to the life and experiences of the educator in the learning process 
while responding to calls for theoretical examination in more diverse 
contexts. It thus illustrates how more varied, situated accounts of 
transformative learning attempts may challenge and improve our 
understandings of adult learning encounters. 

Transformative learning challenges in a context of trauma and fear: an educator's story 269 

Keywords: Transformative learning theory, educator life 
experiences, adult education, KwaZulu-Natal. 


Transformative learning theory, first articulated by the American adult 
education theorist Jack Mezirow in 1978, has received substantial 
attention from both practitioners and researchers in adult education. A 
series of influential studies by Taylor (1997, 2001, 2007, 2008) typifies 
and elaborates the interest in transformative learning theory from a 
research perspective. The recent article by Christie, Carey, Robertson 
and Grainger (2015), in this journal, reviewed some of this literature and 
highlighted key aspects of critique of the theory. Their interest of forging 
tighter links between the theory and practice, as displayed in the work of 
Cranton (1994; 1996) and Apte (2009), is also at the heart of this article. 

Today, transformative learning theory rests on over three decades of 
development and scholarship in adult education, and stands as a major 
theory of adult learning with considerable support in the empirical 
literature (Christie et. al, 2015; Taylor & Snyder, 2012; Apte, 2009; 
Taylor, 1997, 2007). The theory has also attracted much critique 
(Newman, 2014, Taylor, 2007; Inglis, 1997; Newman, 1994) some of 
which has evoked responses from Mezirow himself (Mezirow, 1997; 
Mezirow, 1998). Recent development of this vast scholarship shows 
a quest for a more unified theory (Cranton and Taylor, 2012). While 
substantial, most of this literature has emerged from Western contexts, 
prompting calls for explorations of the theory in more diverse contexts 
(Taylor, 1997; Nsteane, 2011; Ntseane, 2012). This article responds to 
such calls by exploring the challenges of attempting transformative 
learning in an oppressive South African context marked by fear and 

This article examines transformative learning theory in the light of 
findings from a case study of the Human Rights, Democracy and 
Development (HRDD) project, an adult education project in rural 
KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. This province has a deep and painful 
history of political violence and civil war. The trauma and fear from 
such experiences continue to strongly frame learners’ and educators’ 

270 Vaughn M. John 

classroom interactions. Drawing on life and pedagogical experiences of 
an educator (called Cosmos) in the HRDD project, the article focusses 
on aspects of the theory which have been the subject of critique and 
raises questions about attempts to foster transformative learning 
in a context of trauma and fear. In particular, it draws attention to 
the manner in which such contexts shape the frames of reference of 
educators and questions what levels of transformation are possible 
when educators themselves are constrained by fear and trauma. While 
based primarily on the story of Cosmos, data from other educators and 
a learner are briefly included to convey the levels of fear, trauma and 
oppression generally experienced by educators and learners in this 
context. The article first reviews relevant literature on transformative 
learning theory and provides introductions to the HRDD project and its 

Transformative learning theory 

Transformative learning theory deals with a learning process in which 
adults examine their meaning perspectives, via a process of critical 
reflection (premise reflection), resulting in transformation of such 
perspectives. When perspectives are transformed, emancipatory 
learning is said to have occurred, paving the way for personal 
transformation. Mezirow (1998:72) explains that transformative 
learning theory “deals with how individuals may be empowered to learn 
to free themselves from unexamined ways of thinking that impede 
effective judgement and action”. Understanding how a context of 
fear and trauma may impede pedagogical action and limit freedom to 
examine ways of thinking, are important considerations in the ongoing 
development of this theory. 

Transformative learning theory according to Mezirow is where “learning 
is understood as the process of using a prior interpretation to construe 
a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience 
in order to guide future action” (Taylor, 2007:173). Mezirow (1975; 
1991) argued that adults develop over the course of their lives frames 
of reference or meaning perspectives. These structures shape their 
thinking, beliefs and actions. Meaning perspectives act as powerful 
filters or mediators when interpreting new experiences. Despite a large 
body of literature on transformative learning, little is known about how 

Transformative learning challenges in a context of trauma and fear: an educator's story 271 

the frames of reference of learners, and importantly those of educators 
as well, are shaped by conditions of fear and trauma. A key purpose 
of this article is to contribute to this gap in the literature by exploring 
the challenges faced by an educator when attempting transformative 
learning in a post-conflict context which remained oppressive. The 
article draws attention to the manner in which a post-conflict context 
shapes the frames of reference of educators and questions what levels of 
transformation are possible when educators themselves are constrained 
by fear and trauma. 

Mezirow argued that when confronted with new experiences, adults 
need to integrate such experiences with their prior learning. Often, 
such integration will occur smoothly. However, when integration is not 
smooth, but presents a disorienting dilemma or contradiction for the 
person, the person has to find a way of resolving the tension. When the 
person reflects on and revises their meaning perspective, transformative 
learning is said to have occurred (Mezirow 1975; Mezirow, 1991). 

On the basis of his early research, Mezirow (1991:168) described a 
ten-phase process of perspective transformation which began with the 
experience of a disorienting dilemma. While studies have confirmed the 
general model of perspective transformation, several have found the 
process to be recursive rather than linear and that the change could be 
either dramatic or gradual. Mezirow subsequently acknowledged that 
the process may not follow the exact 10-phase sequence (Taylor, 1997). 

A brief review of some of the studies which have applied transformative 
learning theory is now offered in relation to the study reported here. 
More comprehensive reviews are provided by Taylor (1997, 2007) and 
Taylor and Snyder (2012). 

Applications of transformative learning theory in research 

Transformative learning theory has been employed in a number 
of empirical studies and theoretical essays in adult education and 
other areas of education. Taylor’s reviews (1997, 2007) and update 
of emerging conceptions (Taylor, 2008) attest to such widespread 
engagement with transformative learning theory in studies of social and 
community transformation, participation in group experiences, personal 
illness, intercultural learning and lifestyle and career changes, amongst 

272 Vaughn M. John 

In a study which was largely supportive of the theory, Bennetts (2003) 
found that individuals within a fellowship scheme involving supportive 
and trusting relationships, enjoyed significant transformations in 
motivation, career aspirations, relationships and quality of life. This pro- 
transformational role of supportive and trusting relationships has also 
been identified as a key feature in the Afrocentric perspective advanced 
by Nsteane (2011, 2012). Ntseane (2012) attributes these features to the 
concept of ubuntu which has shaped an African worldview centred on 
belonging and connectedness. The present study, through the story of 
Cosmos, reveals the constraints on transformative learning in a post¬ 
conflict context lacking support and trust. 

A study which specifically explores transformative learning during a 
post-conflict phase of a group of adults’ lives is offered by Magro and 
Polyzoi (2009). Interviews with refugees in Greece and Canada, many 
of whom had experienced severe trauma and loss similar to that of 
participants reported on in this article, showed that for refugees “who 
came from zones of conflict and war, the ability to think critically and 
be open to new learning is [negatively] influenced by trauma and stress” 
(Magro & Polyzoi, 2009:104) While Magro and Polyzoi’s study explores 
the effects of these experiences on the learner, the present study 
discusses similar effects on the educator. 

While studies generally indicate support for the theory, some have also 
been a rich source of critique and an impetus to further development of 
transformative learning theory. The final section of this article engages 
with some of this critique within the gaze of an educator’s (named 
Cosmos) story. For the purposes of this article it is more appropriate 
to engage with this aspect of the literature in discussion of the dynamic 
interactions between context, life experiences and Cosmos’ practices. In 
particular, critique of the theory relating to the role of intense emotions 
and prior stressful life events (Taylor, 1997) and contexts of systemic 
oppression (Newman, 1994) are discussed. 

While transformative learning theory has a substantial and growing 
literature, the development, application and critique of the learning 
theory, however, has a strong Western frame developed primarily from 
studies of formal learning contexts. There is a need for examination 
of the theory in more diverse contexts including more non-formal 

Transformative learning challenges in a context of trauma and fear: an educator's story 273 

education contexts as called for by Taylor, Duveskog & Friis-Hansen 
(2012). The present study of the HRDD project affords such opportunity 
to explore transformative learning in a non-formal educational context 
in Africa. 

The Human Rights, Democracy and Development (HRDD) project 

The HRDD project was an adult education and development 
intervention in rural KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), South Africa. Initiated 
in 1999 as a partnership between a non-governmental organization, 
a university adult education department, a foreign donor agency and 
seven communities in rural KwaZulu-Natal namely, Tugela Ferry, 
Stoffelton, Muden, Dalton, Trust Feed, Qanda and Estcourt. The project 
operated for almost ten years during which adult learners from these 
communities were offered participation in a combination of adult 
basic education and livelihood projects. These communities have high 
levels of unemployment and poverty, and low levels of education and 
development, contributing to their ongoing deprivation and social 
exclusion (Statistics South Africa, 2003). Most had also experienced a 
period of devastating political violence and continuing gender-based 
violence within a patriarchal culture. The project aimed to create 
a literate, informed and active citizenry who could participate in 
development in their communities. Educators for the literacy classes 
were recruited from within these rural communities and constituted a 
new cadre of community-based adult educators who have been trained 
and supported by the NGO and university partners. The learners and 
educators who participated in the project were predominantly women. 

In the context of the transition from Apartheid to democratic rule, a 
central rationale for the project was to establish literacy classes and 
income-generating projects within marginalised communities as spaces 
for people to learn and practice democracy in a micro context, as 
preparation for application and civic action in wider contexts. Strong 
emphasis on the themes of human rights, democracy and development 
in the literacy curriculum reflects the project’s name. An important 
goal of this intervention was to facilitate critical reflection and dialogue 
amongst participants with regard to their life circumstances and their 
futures with a view to fostering transformative learning. 

274 Vaughn M. John 

Case study methodology in exploring the HRDD project 

In 2009, the author who was employed by the university partner of the 
project, conducted an in-depth, qualitative study of the HRDD project 
study covering the first seven years of its existence, from 1999 until 
2005 (John, 2009). Using case study methodology within a critical 
paradigm, the study sought to critically document, analyse and theorise 
the practices, learning and identity development within the HRDD 
project. The entire HRDD project served as the unit of analysis for the 
case study. Rule and John (2011:4) describe case study as “a systematic 
and in-depth investigation of a particular instance in its context in 
order to generate knowledge”. A major determinant of methodological 
choice was that a case study is able to locate and understand action 
most suitably within its historical, social and political contexts. Catching 
the complexity and situatedness of pedagogical action is a focus of this 

Data collection for the entire case study included twenty eight in-depth 
interviews with learners, educators and project partners, observations 
and analysis of more than one hundred project documents. The process 
of in-depth interviewing, which generated the data which this article is 
based on, was guided by Seidman (1998). An initial interview focussed 
on the educator and his/her life history while a second interview, a 
week later, focussed on the educator’s understanding and experience 
of the HRDD project. In both interviews educators were encouraged to 
construct their own stories in a self-directed and open-ended fashion. 
Interviews were conducted in the mother-tongue of the participants 
(isiZulu), translated into English and then transcribed and verified. 

Generating a substantial part of the data for this study in the form of 
narratives was underpinned by the epistemological goal of seeing the 
project through the eyes of different actors and to understand and 
theorise the project in terms of these actors’ understandings and lives. 
This strategy is endorsed by Rossiter and Clark (2007:3) who advise that 
we “make sense of our experience, day by day and across the lifespan, 
by putting it into story form”. Data analysis was primarily about making 
sense of the project through the narratives and perspectives of key 
participants. Content analysis of themes rather than language form was 
the main form of analysis, due to transformations of language form in 

Transformative learning challenges in a context of trauma and fear: an educator's story 275 

the translation process. The analytic process involved repeated careful 
readings of the data, deductive and inductive identification of themes, 
categorisation of themes, leading to identification of patterns between 
categories. The identification of themes and thematic categories in one 
narrative were constantly compared with such identification in other 

This article focusses on findings related to the life and practices of an 
educator in the project, who chose the pseudonym Cosmos for the 
purpose of this research. The story of Cosmos was purposively selected 
for this article because it so ably illustrates the dynamic interactions 
between context, life experiences and educator practice in an attempt at 
transformative learning. Complex gender relations become visible when 
viewed from the perspective of a young male educator teaching women 
in a patriarchal and politically divided context. The story of Cosmos 
reveals the constraints on transformative learning in a post-conflict 
context and the vulnerabilities such educators are exposed to. While this 
article is based primarily on the story of Cosmos, data from three other 
educators in the project, namely, Khosi, Welcome and Nokthula, as well 
as that of a learner called Zinhle, are used to vividly portray the levels 
of fear, trauma and oppression generally experienced by educators and 
learners in this context. A brief discussion of this context is necessary for 
an understanding of Cosmos’ story. 

KwaZulu-Natal: a context of violence 

The province of KwaZulu-Natal, situated on the east coast of South 
Africa, experienced deep political division and violent power struggles 
during the 1980s and early 1990s. This contestation, ostensibly between 
the Inkatha movement (supported by the apartheid state) and the 
United Democratic Front which advanced the struggle of the then- 
banned African National Congress (ANC), manifested in some of the 
worst political violence in pre-democratic South Africa. According to 
Aitchison (2003a:47) this was a period when “thousands of people had 
lost their lives and homes and a deep bitterness had infected the life of 
the province”. Dubbed the “Natal War” this period of violence claimed 
the lives of approximately 7500 people and left a wake of destruction 
and trauma (Jeffery, 1997; Aitchison, 2003a, 2003b). 

276 Vaughn M. John 

This history of violence in KwaZulu-Natal and its present day effects 
featured significantly in the narratives of all seven educators in the 
study’s sample, and have thus been identified by these educators as a 
significant frame for viewing the HRDD project. Most of the educators in 
the study were directly affected by the political violence either through 
attacks on members of their family and their homes or through threats 
to their own lives. Some lost family members, their homes and other 
possessions in the violence. A number of them had to flee their homes 
and take refuge in other communities, sometimes repeatedly. A young 
educator who chose to be called Welcome spoke of the tragic loss of 
four relatives which caused his family to seek refuge in another area. 
When violence began in their new community they decided to return to 
their original community, where he subsequently worked as an HRDD 
educator. On their return they found that their home had been taken 
over by another family and they were allocated a building site which was 
less suitable in comparison to their original one. He says: 

Violence, hey, it was really very bad ...yes, it was very bad 
really, because four members of my family died ... my uncles 
and cousins. That disturbed us a lot, as we even relocated from 
(community l). At (community 2) then, I also nearly died. 

Another organization spotted me having not attended a meeting. 
The following day when I was walking from school, they stopped 
me and asked me, “Why did you not go to that meeting?” ... I said, 
“I did go”. They said, “Do not lie”. They took out... guns. They 
said, “You are fooling us, why are you lying?”... Then they asked, 
“What party are you”? I said, “I am not yet in parties”... Then they 
said, “No, go home and think carefully what you are then come 
back and tell us”. On that very day I left, because I could see my 
life was, my days are over. People were being slaughtered there, 
just like goats. I don’t really know how I escaped. 

The experiences of loss and displacement have been traumatic for these 
educators and their relatives. These are life experiences which educators 
have in common with their learners. The political violence was brutal 
and traumatic, scarring many. The ongoing effects of the violence are 
visible in how people relate to each other and negotiate daily activities 
within development projects and other forms of community life. An 
element of fear often shapes such interactions. For many, the violence 

Transformative learning challenges in a context of trauma and fear: an educator's story 217 

is remembered and narrated as a critical event in their lives, shaping 
much of who they are and what they do or cannot do in the development 
arena. Violence generates particular frames of reference which are 
brought into the classroom by learners and their educators. 

While the political violence has largely ended and Apartheid was 
defeated, the struggle for political freedom has not translated into socio¬ 
economic freedom nor into social justice. Too many of South Africa’s 
new citizens remain in poverty and continue to struggle to meet basic 
needs such as food, water, health care and education (Human Sciences 
Research Council & Education Projects Unit, 2005). A large proportion 
of these people live in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, which has some 
of the most severe concentrations of unemployment, illiteracy, rural 
marginalisation and HIV infection in South Africa (Human Sciences 
Research Council, 2014). South Africa also has extremely high levels of 
gender-based violence. A woman is killed by an intimate partner every 8 
hours in South Africa (Abrahams et al. 2012). 

A further significant feature identified by educators in the HRDD project 
was that of growing up and living in a strong patriarchy. Both the history 
of violence and patriarchal power were presented as key features of the 
KwaZulu-Natal context, mediating the transformative learning potential 
of the HRDD project in an oppressive context marked by trauma and 
fear. The story of Cosmos, a young, African, male educator in the HRDD 
project, illustrates this mediating effect. 

Dynamic interactions between context, life experiences and educator 
practice - the story of Cosmos 

This section of the article provides an in-depth analysis of how one 
educator, Cosmos, negotiates the relational space of the project at the 
level of pedagogy. Such a focus reveals the dynamic interactions between 
context, life experiences and educators’ practices. It also reveals how 
Cosmos’ practice is shaped (structured) and negotiated (enacted). The 
example of how Cosmos makes meaning of his role as an educator 
illustrates the value of a deeper understanding of educators’ lives, 
particularly experiences of trauma and fear, when considering educator 
development and practices. It furthermore points to the importance 
of seeing educator development and practices as socially situated and 

278 Vaughn M. John 

The context of educators’ lives and the critical events in their life 
histories are not just background features. They continue to shape 
educators’ lives, beliefs and practices. At a theoretical level, such 
shaping could fruitfully be explored in terms of Mezirow’s discussion 
of “frames of reference” (Mezirow, 1991) and Freire’s discussion of 
“worldviews” and “limit situations” (Freire, 1970). Cosmos’ story, a story 
which was not untypical of the educators who participated in the study, 
demonstrates how his early life experiences and his context frames his 
HRDD practice and how he makes meaning of his practice. 

Cosmos is a single 26 year old man who lives with his mother and 
sister in a deeply rural part of KwaZulu-Natal. He has a child whom 
he supports financially but who does not live with him. Cosmos sees 
himself as exceptionally bright and above his fellow schoolmates in 
educational terms. He passed his school-leaving examination with good 
results and wanted to become an accountant. This dream had been 
frustrated by his family’s poor financial circumstances. His mother is a 
farmworker who is illiterate and who earns a small income. On the basis 
of his results, his school principal suggested that he consider becoming 
a teacher but he says that he did not want to become a school teacher. 

He prefers teaching adults because, “they know why they are learning”. 
Cosmos said that the HRDD work brings “small money” and some 
recognition in the community. 

The first of two interviews with Cosmos was strongly framed by the 
painful experience of his early life (pre-HRDD) and the consequences of 
his parents’ divorce and his father’s polygamy. This led to his rejection 
by his father and is seen as the reason for his inability to study further 
and the lack of resources in his home. Cosmos spent a considerable 
part of the interview talking about his parents’ divorce and his sense of 
abandonment and how much this affected him in the past and continues 
to affect him in psychological and material terms (see John, 2009). 

Based on his own extensive narrative, Cosmos’s reflections on the 
critical events of his father divorcing his mother, rejecting him as a 
child and supporting only his first wife, reveals that these life events 
constituted a significant trauma for Cosmos. These events have 
influenced Cosmos’ perspectives on divorce, polygamy and women’s 
rights, which present some ambiguity and contradictions when lined up 

Transformative learning challenges in a context of trauma and fear: an educator's story 279 

against project goals. On women’s rights and gender equality, Cosmos 
believes that teaching women to assert their equal status in the home 
could lead to domestic problems and divorce. He believes that rural men 
will not accept this. He has therefore resolved this tension by teaching 
women to believe that they are equal but to keep this to themselves. He 

... we teach our learners about human rights ... even in the books 
they say people are all equal. But people here, especially the men, 
don’t accept that. They [men] say, “I can’t be equal to you, because 
you left your home to live with me and I paid a lobola [bride 
price] for you. So you are not equal to me”. So that is something 
they don’t accept. So we have ... now advised our learners not 
to use that right, because it causes a split between them in their 

What Cosmos appears to be attempting with his learners is information 
sharing and a muted form of personal transformation which neither 
allows for action nor contributes to social transformation. From his 
own experience as a child, Cosmos has learnt that divorce is not a good 
thing. He does not want his learners to face the prospect of divorce 
because of what he has to teach them. This is a tension between the 
text and context of the HRDD curriculum. What Cosmos’ experience of 
his parents’ divorce adds to the curriculum equation is a subtext which 
causes him to believe that educating women about their rights should 
not lead to divorce. Such subtext features, the ways in which educators 
mediate the text and context with their own life-world understandings is 
often invisible in educational projects and not available to the planning 

The above example also illustrates the importance of “communal 
forms of living” and the “relational realities” identified in the 
Afrocentric perspective of learning set out by Ntseane (2012:275). 

Such a perspective stands in contrast to a Western perspective which 
values autonomy and independence. Mezirow (cited by Merriam and 
Nsteane, 2008:185) indicates this latter perspective when stating that 
the “cardinal goal of adult education” is to enable adults to make “more 
autonomous and informed choices”. However, Cosmos’ adult education 
goal is governed by a collective rather than an individual sense of 

280 Vaughn M. John 

responsibility. Merriam and Ntseane (2008) identify this sense of 
responsibility as a feature of African value systems and learning. 

Some of the subtexts align with project goals and values, others jar 
with them. There is a further example of a strong subtext feature which 
Cosmos brings to his class, which jars with project goals. As discussed 
earlier, the community context in which Cosmos teaches has a recent 
history of deep political divisions which manifested in deadly violence 
over a number of years. Intolerance and fear prevail. Political identities 
are strong in this context, perhaps stronger than identities of educator 
and learner. The learning environment and curriculum faces challenges 
and doubts regarding its political character and motives. To reduce 
the overt politicization of the classroom, Cosmos has requested that 
his learners not wear the T-shirts of their political organizations when 
attending class. He explains: 

So people who support (party A) here, they think we are preaching 
to our learners to join (party B). So now we have realised that 
there is a need for us as teachers to tell our learners that they 
must not wear (party) t-shirts in our classes, or even in the street 
because people think we, we teach them to wear those things 
they are wearing ... So, we are very, very committed to teach. We 
are advising them not to wear t-shirts in our classes, even in the 
street, unless they are going to meet their comrades in rallies or in 

The history of violence and current political power struggles make it 
difficult for educators to forge relationships which facilitate their HRDD 
work. A female educator, Khosi, also explained how the political divide 
and suspicion affects her HRDD work: 

Since I am under another Inkosi [traditional leader] there are 
people of this area who do not understand what I am doing 
here ... Some people have a tendency of thinking that I work for 
political parties. 

In a project which aims to foster tolerance, respect for diversity, rights to 
freedom of association and speech, Cosmos’ actions could be seen to be 
counter-productive and not serving the democratic and transformative 
goals of the project. However, in a context where an educator has 

Transformative learning challenges in a context of trauma and fear: an educator's story 281 

personal experience of people being killed because of their political 
affiliation and where his own political identity is under scrutiny, it can 
be expected that he would not want to take many risks, irrespective 
of the importance of these within the curriculum text. Cosmos has to 
find a way of giving expression to a curriculum promoting freedom and 
transformation within a context of fear. This is clearly no easy task. 

Cosmos’ story highlights the importance of focussing not just on 
education practice and its reifications such as the “official HRDD 
curriculum” but also on the actors in the practice. In doing so we are 
able to better understand Cosmos and his practice, and we may consider 
the tension in the multiple identities he holds. Kilgore and Bloom 
(2002:123) also note that in contexts of crisis, the “fragmented self is 
a more appropriate organizing structure”. Cosmos has a pre-HRDD 
identity of a young man disowned by his father in a polygamous and 
fractured family system, as well as an HRDD educator identity with 
enactments of attempting transformative learning about rights and 
gender equality. Such identities are difficult to blend into a unified sense 
of self. Through Cosmos’ in-depth narrative we can observe multiple 
identities and more importantly, we can observe how life history and 
context can blunt the transformative edge of the HRDD project! 

A socio-political milieu of fear and trauma 

Cosmos’ story reveals the enormous challenges encountered when 
attempting transformative learning in a socio-political milieu of fear 
and trauma. South African society is characterised by a well-entrenched 
system of patriarchy and gender inequality. Women face substantial 
discrimination, domination and abuse in this system. Rural KwaZulu- 
Natal presents some of the clearest evidence of this system in all arenas 
of life, particularly in family and community relations, but also within 
the educational arena (Human Sciences Research Council & Education 
Projects Unit, 2005; John, 2009). 

The majority of learners in the HRDD project were women who 
experienced multiple forms of discrimination and oppression. Consider 
for example the case of the learner Zinhle, who offered a poignant and 
critical assessment regarding the termination of her primary education: 

282 Vaughn M. John 

My father was primitive; he believed that girls should not be sent 
to school... I left school in [my] second year, I didn’t even finish it. 
I thought I would not continue because my father said he cannot 
spend his money educating me for someone else [reference to a 
future husband]. 

Nokthula, an educator in the project also experienced disruption to her 
schooling as a result of fear and trauma: 

We stayed in our shack ... behind the Stadium... violence erupted. 
Where I was staying....whenever I went to school there were these 
boys who were always asking me why I was not coming to them 
when they were calling me. They accused me of being anti-ANC... 
One day they decided to necklace [burning a person to death] 
me with a car tyre ...fortunately there was a person who was my 
mother’s friend...that person saw me....the painful part is that 
eventually they killed that person. My mother decided that we 
should leave ... since she was about to lose me too. We came here 1992. It was difficult for me at school. I think my mind was 
disturbed because I did not pass. I repeated ... Eventually I passed 
standard 9 until I found myself passing standard ten. 

Most of the educators in the project were women, like Nokthula. They 
were employed and trained to facilitate learning and change with 
learners such as Zinhle. They were expected to tackle gender-based 
discrimination and to foster conscientisation, critical reflection and 
empowerment (Freire, 1970; Mezirow, 1975), in order that learners 
could take action to address different forms of oppression they faced 
as women. The human rights, democracy and development focus 
in the HRDD project foregrounded the rights of women. However, 
most of the educators had themselves experienced and continued to 
experience quite severe forms of gender-based discrimination and 
violence. It is quite likely that many educators had not been able to fully 
overcome their own oppression as women and yet were attempting 
to foster change in the lives of their learners through education. How 
effective can educators be in facilitating transformative learning when 
they themselves have not been able to shed gender-based frames of 
reference which limit women? This study highlights the challenges of 
using community-based educators who themselves have experienced 

Transformative learning challenges in a context of trauma and fear: an educator's story 283 

and are experiencing violence and oppression as change agents for 
transformative learning. Educators, as indicated in the case of Cosmos, 
are struggling to reconcile their own trauma and personal histories of 
struggle with project goals and discourses. More attention should be 
given to this dynamic in educator development work and in programmes 
inspired by transformative learning theory. 

With a sense of the powerful interplay between context, life experience 
and educator practice, the article now engages with some of the earlier- 
mentioned critique of transformative learning theory in the light of 
Cosmos’ story. 

Engaging the critique of transformative learning theory via Cosmos' 

While Taylor’s (1997, 2007) reviews show that a number of studies 
confirmed Mezirow’s model of perspective transformation, he does 
however indicate that there were additional aspects not considered 
by the model. Some of the studies reviewed signalled the need for 
considerations of the role of intense emotions and prior stressful life 
events, of readiness factors for change, of non-rational ways of knowing 
such as intuition, empathy and spirituality, and of the centrality of 
positive relationships in transformative learning. Taylor (1997:55) also 
identified the need for transformative learning, 

... to be explored at a more in-depth level, providing greater 
understanding of the varying nature of the catalyst of the learning 
process (disorienting dilemma), the significant influence of 
context (personal and social factors), the minimization of the role 
of critical reflection and increased role of other ways of knowing. 

All of these findings from Taylor’s (1997, 2007) critical reviews pointed 
to the need for a more holistic and contextually grounded view of 
transformative learning with greater attention paid to affect and 
emotional engagement and to barriers in the socio-political milieu of 
learning. These dimensions of learning are vividly illustrated in the 
story of Cosmos. More importantly, while the learner is the focus in 
Taylor’s review when arguing for the need for further development of 
the theory, the findings of the study of the HRDD project draw attention 
to the educator and how in-depth understanding of the educator’s 

284 Vaughn M. John 

emotions, stressful life events and readiness for change may influence 
the transformative learning process. As much as transformative learning 
is premised on an autonomous learner, it also tends to be premised on 
an autonomous and transformed educator who can act as an agent of 
change. In oppressive contexts, marked by fear and trauma, this is not 
a given. Furthermore, transformative learning can be highly risky work 
and vulnerable educators, not organisations, are the ones who must face 
the brunt of such risk. 

Newman (1994) asserted that transformative learning theory had 
not provided answers for how transformative learning could occur 
in the context of systemic oppression and for how it could contribute 
to political struggle. Newman’s disappointment stems largely from 
the neglect of social action, particularly collective social action, in 
transformative learning theory. He drew attention to Mezirow’s 
acknowledgement that adult educators could only help facilitate 
emancipatory education which led to personal transformation. In a 
response entitled, “Transformation theory out of context”, Mezirow 
(1997) contended that personal transformation triggered by a 
disorienting dilemma occurred through a three part process: critical 
reflection of assumptions (meaning perspectives), reflective discourse to 
validate insight, and action. Mezirow’s (1997) view is that in conditions 
of oppression, the individual and/or collective action taken by the 
learner should be under the learner’s own direction and terms. He also 
argued that collective social action was a special competence for which 
adult educators needed training. This study shows that training on its 
own may not be sufficient. Cosmos and his fellow educators received 
considerable training during the life of the project. Furthermore, 
negotiating the tricky political terrain of a post-conflict context is 
onerous for young educators. 

Taking an in-depth look at an educator’s practice via Cosmos’ narratives 
provided significant insights into the severe barriers to collective 
action. Fear and traumatic life history feature in this case as necessary 
dimensions to understanding educator practices. We see how Cosmos 
negotiates the learning-action dimensions of his practice. His account, 
of a central human rights issue about gender equality involved reflection 
(including painful self-reflection) and some dialogue but it did not lead 
to action. In fact, Cosmos’ practice purposely discourages and disables 

Transformative learning challenges in a context of trauma and fear: an educator's story 285 

transformative social action. Was Cosmos’ inability to effect collective 
social action a consequence of insufficient training? 

Taylor (1997, 2007) has presented transformative learning theory 
as a theory still in development. Importantly, Taylor also noted that 
few studies have considered the influence of cultural background on 
transformative learning, leaving key determinants such as race, class, 
gender, sexual orientation and marginalization largely unexplored. This 
conclusion heightens the contribution which the case study of the HRDD 
project offers to the literature on transformative learning theory. 


Transformative learning theory enjoys considerable support in adult 
education practice and research. However, studies of transformative 
learning theory appear to be based largely on Western contexts with 
middle class samples and, on occasion, working class samples. The 
so-called underclass, the poor, marginalised and oppressed sectors 
of society, rarely feature in studies of transformative learning. In 
other words, transformative learning theory has not been adequately 
interrogated in contexts of ongoing deprivation, violence and 
oppression. Examination of the theory in such contexts, where trauma 
and fear are prevalent, could contribute to the ongoing development 
of transformative learning theory and practice. The study of the 
HRDD project highlights the value of more situated explorations of 
transformative learning involving more diverse contexts and samples. 

Furthermore, while Taylor (2008:12) has correctly advised that “it is 
important to appreciate the role of life experience among learners”, 
it is clearly also important to pay attention to the life experiences and 
identities of the educator in the transformative learning process, as 
these factors are powerful shapers of pedagogical practices. The use of 
community-based educators in post-conflict contexts draws attention 
to the needs of educators in terms of their personal healing, programme 
training and ongoing support in their work. Clearly, part of such 
preparation requires supporting educators to become more aware of the 
influence of their own experiences, frames of reference and the power 
of their own biases. The story of Cosmos shows that the transformative 
potential of a curriculum is a product of the dynamic interactions 
between context, life experiences and educator practice. This has 

286 Vaughn M. John 

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About the Author 

Dr Vaughn M. John is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at 
the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His teaching and research interests are 
in Adult Learning, Peace Education, HIV & AIDS and Education, and 
Research Methodology. 

Contact details 

Vaughn M. John 
School of Education, 

University of KwaZulu-Natal 

Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa 3201